If you plan to become a lawyer in California, you’ll be in good company. With over 170,300 lawyers, the Golden State is one of the country’s most popular places to practice the law.
That’s because of the state’s diverse employment opportunities, including entertainment, real estate, and technology law—not to mention its high earning potential.
Becoming a lawyer in California takes dedication and drive. In this post, we’ll highlight the step-by-step process, including academic qualifications, bar exam preparation, and more.
What does a lawyer do?
First things first: A reminder of what exactly a lawyer does.
Lawyers help people and organizations navigate legal matters. This includes:
- Representing clients in court
- Advising them on legal matters
- Drafting legal documents
- Conducting research.
The exact nature of lawyers’ daily responsibilities ultimately depends on their specialization. For more on specialization, read our guide on how to become a lawyer in a specialized area.
Can you become a lawyer in California without a law degree?
Technically, yes. California is one of only four states that lets lawyers forgo law school—but specific requirements must still be met. As one alternative path, students can work under the supervision of a California judge or an attorney in a law office for 18 hours a week for four years. Those that choose this route must also pass the First-Year Law Students’ Exam, Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, and California Bar Exam.
Steps to become a lawyer in California
Becoming a lawyer is a multi-step process, but it can lead to a rewarding career. Below, we’ve outlined the typical pathway to become a practicing lawyer in California.
1. Get your bachelor’s degree
Like all legal fields, the first step in your legal education journey is to obtain your bachelor’s degree.
While there aren’t any specific degree requirements, it’s a good rule of thumb to focus on areas that relate to law.
With that in mind, popular majors include:
- Political science
- Social sciences
- International relations
Coursework in these areas equips students with essential knowledge and skills to have as future lawyers, including research and writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
As you reach the end of your degree and determine that law school is right for you, you’ll need to take and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
This standardized test measures your reading comprehension, reasoning, and writing through two components: multiple-choice questions and a written essay.
2. Earn your law degree and pass the California state bar exam
For those who choose the traditional path, the next step to becoming a lawyer in California is to start a three-year Juris Doctor (JD) degree at one of the nearly 200 ABA-accredited law schools.
While it’s not a requirement, studying in the state you intend to practice law in can be a good idea. That’s because it can open the door to invaluable connections and set you up for success as you start your career. We’ve compiled a list of the top law schools in the country that can provide excellent education and networking opportunities.
There are 21 ABA-accredited law schools in California. These include:
- Stanford University Law School
- University of Southern California Law School
- Pepperdine University Law School
- University of San Diego School of School
- Southwestern Law School
After completing one year of law school, you’re eligible to take a two-hour, multiple-choice test—the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)—administered through the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The exam must be completed before you can sit for the California Bar exam and is offered three times a year.
The California Bar Exam
As you near the end of your studies, it’s time to prepare for one of the biggest steps in your journey: the bar examination.
The two-day exam assesses a wide range of legal knowledge and skills. The format varies from state to state—in California, it consists of five essay questions, one 90-minute performance test, and 200 multiple-choice questions.
The California Bar Exam is offered in:
- Los Angeles
- San Diego
- San Francisco
Bar exams are notoriously challenging and a true test of endurance. The California Bar Exam has gotten a reputation for being the toughest in the country—only 32.5% of the 16,000 people who take it pass. So, it’s a good idea to study hard and take a bar preparation course.
Aspiring lawyers in California will also need to complete a background check, called the Moral Character Application. As this can take at least six months to review and approve, you should complete it at the start of your final year of law school.
3. Apply for admission to the State Bar of California
After passing the California Bar Examination, you’ll have five years to apply for admission to the State Bar of California.
To keep your license to practice law, you’ll also need to complete 25 hours of Continuing Legal Education every three years. This includes spending four hours on legal ethics, one hour on competence issues, and one hour on Recognition and Elimination of Bias in the Legal Profession and Society.
4. Gain hands-on experience in the field
One benefit to being a lawyer in California is that you have your choice of a wide array of settings to work in. You could start your career in a large law firm, at a government agency, or in a corporate legal department, for instance.
Still figuring out which path to take? A great way to understand the field is to gain hands-on experience. Internships, clinics, and volunteer and pro bono work can all provide a peek into the world of law.
Not only does gaining hands-on experience help determine the best fit for you, but it also sets you apart in the eyes of employers.
5. Connect with potential clients
After obtaining your law degree, passing the bar, and deciding which legal career path you want to follow, you’ve reached one of the final steps to launching a legal career: finding clients.
For instance, if you’re starting your own practice, inevitably, the question that arises is: “as a solo attorney, how do I find clients?”
Local bar associations and professional organizations can help, especially those that host conferences (such as The Clio Cloud Conference) and events bringing together lawyers and potential clients.
If you want to have any chance of succeeding in today’s legal world, you’ve also got to have a presence online, and you’ve got to use technology to help grow your law practice.
Clio Grow also helps lawyers simplify the intake process through customized forms and the ability to quickly onboard clients from anywhere.
Tips for becoming a successful lawyer in California
California is home to the second-highest number of lawyers in the country, after New York. So, what can you do to stand out as you start your career? We’ve got a few tips.
- Harness legal technology to work smarter. Today, legal technology helps lawyers work more efficiently by automating tedious tasks. This ultimately empowers them to spend more time practicing the law. Legal technology also delivers a better experience for clients by allowing them to choose how they pay legal bills, communicate with lawyers, and more.
- Make networking a top priority. With its many law firms and legal organizations, California offers a host of networking opportunities. You can attend local bar associations, legal associations, or numerous other events to connect with industry peers, mentors, and potential clients.
- Join elective membership organizations. You can also stand out by joining elective membership organizations that align with your interests and practice area. Some examples include the California Lawyers Association, California Women Lawyers, and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. They offer networking opportunities, promote education, and support professional development.
Average salary of California lawyers
How does California stack up with lawyer salaries across the country? It’s the second top highest-paying state for lawyers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage of a lawyer in the state is $201,530.
However, legal salaries in California fluctuate based on several factors, such as experience, education, and practice area.
Final notes on becoming a lawyer in California
Many legal professionals are drawn to California for its attractive employment opportunities. From working across a span of vibrant industries to supporting a diverse client base, legal jobs in the state can be highly rewarding.
Looking to set yourself up for success in your academic journey? Clio’s Academic Access Program helps participants get hands-on experience in different areas of case management—giving law and paralegal students, instructors, and legal clinics free access to Clio’s industry-leading legal practice management and client intake software.
How long does it take to become a lawyer in California?
Becoming a lawyer in California can take between seven to eight years. This journey typically includes four years spent earning an undergraduate degree, three years pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at an accredited law school, and passing test requirements like the California Bar Exam.
What education is required to become a lawyer in California?
A three-year law school degree is the typical path for many aspiring lawyers. But there are other ways to become a lawyer in California. For instance, lawyers can choose to study in a law firm or with a state judge for a specific period through the Law Office Study Program.